Feminist Reading Two Models of Term Paper

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As such, she fails to address the central problem of feminism in the Pontellier perspective, namely the impossibility of female individuality and independence in a patriarchal world. It is only in isolation that Edna can find any happiness, and she must make this isolation more and more complete in order to maintain her happiness, as the patriarchy has a means of encroaching on all populated areas, and Wollstonecraft's feminism does not offer an alternative to this need to escape humanity.

A final snort of disgust might be distinctly heard from Edna Pontellier upon her reading of this line of Wollstonecraft's, afterwards she might likely have flung the text aside (or into the fireplace, depending on the season): "Pleasure is the business of woman's life, according to the present modification of society" (ch. 4, par. 10). What Wollstonecraft means is that women are thought to be so fragile, so emotional, and so otherwise incompetent that they are taught to take and seek pleasure as a means of protection, and Wollstonecraft takes umbrage at the fact that this turns women into weaker and less effective individuals than they were designed to be. The idea that the life of a woman was in any way dedicated to pleasure would be roundly rejected by Edna, however, both in terms of direct and tangible pleasures -- sexual liberation, economic independence, the ability to paint or otherwise express passions without restraint -- and in terms of the larger roles and identities that women were expected to fill as a means of creating their own identities. What Wollstonecraft fails to see, possibly because it is not explicitly mentioned by the male-made arguments to which she is reacting, but what Edna would absolutely perceive underlying the guise of encouraging pleasure-seeking in women, is that it leads to the increased subservience of women. Wollstonecraft addresses only some of the surface issues important to feminism, according to this reading, and fails entirely to probe as deeply as is warranted and necessary.

Humanizing Edna

Edna Pontellier is clearly presented as a "strange" or "unnatural" woman throughout the Awakening and in much of the criticism surrounding Chopin's novel, with an apparent inhumanity that makes true compassion both for her and from her impossible (Worton, 110). Her love and affection not only for her husband but also for her children is questionable; she does not seem to bear them any malice, but her love is certainly not strong enough to instill a desire in her to be with her children or to care for them -- there is no maternal instinct whatsoever, and this is an explicit source of conflict both within Edna and between Edna and other members of her family and society throughout much of the novel (Chopin). Viewing the independent and solitary brand of feminism that Edna displays through the lens of Wollstonecraft's raises significant questions about what "progress" has been made in feminist thinking.

Wollstonecraft's entire argument is purposefully placed in the context of how women fit into society and how various social elements treat or control women, and she finds it necessary to experience and express femininity within this context. A form of feminism that attempts to deny social roles, and indeed any form of identity creation or assertion that is based on individuality rather than on interaction and social responsibility seems completely foreign to Wollstonecraft's theory and therefore problematic and paradoxical in and of itself. In this view, Edna Pontellier's internal dilemma is not simply the product of her frustration with the social roles that exist for women or even for individuals without regard to gender, but rather stems from her desire to entirely escape society, and to achieve an education or "awakening" that allows her to be separated from society with greater ease and respectability. She herself is chagrined at the early actions she takes in attempting to make a symbolic break with her current life and position: "Edna could not help but think that it was very foolish, very childish, to have stamped upon her wedding ring and smashed the crystal vase upon the tiles" (147). If education is meant to create the most fully realized and functional individuals as a means of making society as a whole more effective, as Wollstonecraft and even the scholars she rails against insist, then a feminism that demands independence from society is misguided in its internal focus just as an internal focus by men or any individual would be considered equally inappropriate and counterproductive.

It is true that the patriarchy allows men to achieve greater inner fulfillment through their freer expression and engagement with the rest of society; this is a point that can be seen in both a Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the Awakening, with Wollstonecraft's explicit comparison of male and female positions and treatment in society and Chopin's clearly juxtaposed representations of the roles that are available to women and to men in her own society. Feminism in the Wollstonecraft mold attempts to address this by correcting the manner in which women are made whole and thus made competent to take part in society, however, and thus a desire to shun society and the expected roles of women within it is simply wrong. This is not to say that Wollstonecraft would find fault with Edna for the desires and conclusions that Edna comes to, though, but in fact Wollstonecraft would almost certainly see this as a product of the patriarchy itself, which by refusing to admit the full realization and partnerships that women are capable of left no place in society that an intelligent and passionate woman like Edna Pontellier could fulfill. She was not allowed to be a true companion to her husband, could not indulge herself in pursuits of personal development such as painting the way a man could without receiving judgment regarding her role as a mother, and could not seek sexual satisfaction (a topic Wollstonecraft does not address but that can be seen as an extension of her assertion that women be allowed to become as fully realized, recognized, and respected as men) within her marriage. Edna is pushed in the wrong direction according to the lens of Vindication, then, but not through fault of her own.


One of the central themes in both the Awakening and a Vindication of the Rights of Woman is that of motherhood. Wollstonecraft believes that all women are naturally disposed to the maternal role and that it is through the controls and unfairness of the patriarchy that they are made unsuitable or perhaps, in a case like Edna's, lacking a desire for such a position. The centrality of being a competent mother to Wollstonecraft's feminism contrasts sharply with Edna's own beliefs, in which maternity is only the most basic and perhaps even infantile expressions of female capabilities. The lack of creativity or personal drive witnessed in Adele is evidence of this, as is Edna's increasing detachment from her children as she comes to know herself more fully. This issue of procreation and maternity continues to inform and create conflict in feminist thought to this day, and is possibly the quintessential problem that has plagued feminism from its very origins.


Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. University of Virginia E-Text Center. Accessed 28 May 2012. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ChoAwak.html

Hammer, Colleen. To Be Equal or Not to Be Equal: The Struggle for Women's Rights as Argued by Mary Wollstonecraft and Christina Rossetti. UCC [working paper].

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Horner, Avril. Kate Chopin, choice and modernism.

Janes, R. On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 39, No. 2 (1978): 293-302.

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